Hark now, hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly
Into the mystic
~ from Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic”
I’m starving for the scent of salty air, y’all. Where I currently am, in a lovely but land-locked area of Texas, there is no salty air anywhere nearby. When my sister first visited us here in Texas from Pensacola, her comment was, “It smells like dirt here.”
Well, I guess it does. It has many redeeming qualities, certainly, but it does kind of smell like dirt. Our property here is basically several acres of red clay that produces an endless supply of iron ore rocks. I could build a fence around the place with all the rocks that come to the surface as I work to get tomatoes and zinnias to grow. If only one could eat rocks, I’d be in business.
But I digress. The beautiful scent of salty air is permanently, firmly entrenched in my memory, and I can tell you the moment that I first noticed its fragrance.
Mom, Sherrin and I were in the station wagon, followed by dad in a moving truck, headed from Charlotte, North Carolina to St. Joe Beach. It was 1976, and we were moving down to Gulf County to live, after mom's parents raved about how much they loved living there, as they’d retired there several years before after living for decades in St. Petersburg. They loved the secluded beaches with their fine, white sand, the kind people, and the reasonable cost of living along what we now call “The Forgotten Coast."
My parents were convinced. They loaded the moving truck and our station wagon, and we headed south. When we crossed into Florida, we got excited. I couldn’t believe the adventure we were having! As we reached the coast, I distinctly remember that mom took a slow, deep breath, and after she exhaled, she said, “Just smell that, girls. Do you smell the salty air? That’s the beach!”
Mom knew the scent well. She had lived all her life in the Tampa-St. Pete area, so for her, the scent of the air in Charlotte was not the same as what she had experienced growing up. The salty air smelled like home to her.
I began sniffing as much as my little nose could sniff, trying to catch a whiff of what mom was noticing. I agreed. It did smell different!
We rented a little house just behind Ms. Barbara Eells’ house on Gulf Street for the first two years of our life in Gulf County. It was a gray-painted cement block house, and it had a screened-in porch with a swing, which is where one day, months later, I would tell Preacher Smith I loved Jesus and wanted to be baptized. And I was, not long afterward, baptized right in the salty, life-giving waters of the Gulf of Mexico, not much more than a stone’s throw from our house.
That scent, you see, isn’t just a regular old, every day, don’t-bother-noticing-it smell. In my mind, at least, it’s part of the very lifeblood of Gulf County, from the beaches, to Highland View, and, now that the “smell of money” from the mill and chemical plant no longer exist, to Port St. Joe, too.
As those of you who have moved away for any length of time know, the lovely salty fragrance of home will sometimes hit you when you’re least expecting it. My sister Sherrin and I, for example, were visiting Charleston on our annual sister trip a few years ago. We were walking along enjoying the beauty of it all on our first full day there, and ended up at the waterfront, where there is a long boardwalk that the city has so hospitably outfitted with numerous porch swings for visitors to enjoy.
We stepped onto the boardwalk and had taken just a few steps toward the water when we both stopped simultaneously, looked at each other, and breathed deeply of the air. Tears sprang to my eyes. I was smelling home. She was, too.
We walked out as far as the boardwalk went, far out over Charleston Harbor, devouring, if that were possible, the aroma of home. The salty, briny air, full of plants and sea creatures, full of life. It was as if our souls were empty sponges that were being filled again by that air. We wanted to bottle it and take it back to Texas with us.
While we were in Charleston, we enjoyed many of the same luscious meals that we enjoyed living for so many years in Gulf County and in Pensacola, where we both went to The University of West Florida and spent many lovely days on the beach.
We enjoyed grouper, red snapper, and crab in Charleston restaurants. My favorite thing, though, was the shrimp and grits. The shrimp were tender, sweet and pink. The grits were creamy, touched with just the right amount of salty cheese, and served in generous portions, a perfect meal!
We will be in Gulf County again soon, and we can hardly wait. We’re already planning all the things we’ll do and all the people we’ll see... and all the hours we’ll spend on the fine, white sand, grateful to smell the scent of home once again.
In the meantime, I try to get an occasional dose of seafood when it’s available here in Texas. In fact, I did that recently for dinner. I made my own version of shrimp and grits, after getting my hands on some wild-caught gulf shrimp here. My recipe was simple, quickly made, and completely delicious. The only way I could improve upon it would be if the shrimp were fresh off a boat in the water there at home, or from a local shrimper selling on the side of the road from his cooler.
If you’d like to try my shrimp and grits recipe, please check it out below, and if you like it, or if you have your own special recipe for shrimp and grits to share, send me an e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you!
Steph’s Shrimp and Grits for Two
For the grits:
Prepare the grits: Pour the broth or water into a 2-quart saucepan. Add salt, pepper flakes, and butter, and bring to a boil.
Add the grits to the boiling liquid, whisking constantly as you do.
Bring the liquid back to a boil while stirring, turn the burner to low, and cover the pot, leaving a bit of a vent to prevent overflow. Cook for length of time suggested on the package. Be careful not to scorch the grits; add more liquid if too thick before time is up, stirring in as you add. Set aside and add cheese, stirring in as it melts.
Prepare the shrimp:
If shrimp are frozen, place in a colander and set it under the kitchen faucet, allowing cold water to run over the frozen shrimp for several minutes until thawed.
Dry shrimp between paper towel layers, and sprinkle lightly with kosher salt and garlic powder.
Place the bacon in a cold skillet. Turn on medium heat under the pan, frying the bacon for several minutes on both sides. Drain bacon on paper towels, then add olive oil to the fat that has rendered from the bacon
When oil is hot, add the onion, scallions, garlic, and red pepper flake, stirring until onion becomes translucent. Then add the shrimp and mushrooms to the pan, as well as the hot sauce. Cook for about five minutes, until the shrimp are pink and cooked through.
Next, my friend Ben Carter who until recently owned a restaurant called Southern Fried in Mineola, Texas, shared this recipe with me, and it tasted really, truly amazing! It feeds more than my shrimp and grits for two, so if you're feeding a crowd, it's a great one to try.
Bacon, Shrimp and Grits Casserole
by Chef Ben Carter
Heat up the milk, cream, butter in a saucepan and stir in grits. Bring to boil stirring frequently. Reduce and simmer until grits are soft.
Add egg, salt, and cheese. Stir until well blended and pour in 9 x 13 baking dish.
Bake 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
While this is baking, cook the topping:
Sauté the bacon, onions, green onions, and garlic.
Add the pepper, cayenne, shrimp and white wine.
Pour in bowl and set aside.
Add flour to pan, then add chicken broth and make a gravy to pour on top by using a whisk, whisking until smooth and thickened.
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph." She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home. She is married and has three sons who love to eat fresh Gulf shrimp, too. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com.You can email her at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.
This article originally appeared on The Star: What Southern Folks Eat: The salty scent of home